U.S. Northern Command is readying itself for natural disasters
as well as manmade threats.
When the United States dispatched aircraft carriers, Coast Guard
vessels and a hospital ship to Southeast Asia during the aftermath
of a massive tsunami in December, two investigators from NORTHCOM
also headed to the area in an effort to glean lessons for natural
disasters within their area of responsibility.
Planners at the command currently are analyzing the information
retrieved by two data-collection specialists who spent a month analyzing
tsunami clean-up efforts. The information will be used to help the
command prepare for such a wide-scale event hammering the continental
United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Dec. 26 tsunami claimed more than 160,000 lives in 11 nations.
The pair of researchers, one a subject matter expert and the other
from the command’s surgeon general’s office, teamed
with Pacific Command to gather information and data for the cleanup,
and bring that information back to Northern Command to help the
staff there better prepare for future disasters.
NORTHCOM officials said the lessons learned would likely be incorporated
into future exercises.
Steps also are being taken to counter extraterrestrial threats.
In late March, the House Science Committee passed a bill that would
help discover near-Earth asteroids. House Resolution 1023 establishes
$3,000 cash awards to encourage amateur astronomers to discover
and track near-Earth asteroids.
NASA would award the money based on the recommendation of the Minor
Planet Center of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge,
In 2004, a large asteroid, with an impact equal to 1,000-megatons,
was calculated to pass a tenth of the distance between the Earth
and moon—a very near miss.
The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in April announced
that the asteroid’s orbit would result in more dangerous close
encounters in the future, as its orbit changes after its first brush
past Earth in 2029. Such danger periods could come every five to
nine years after, the scientists warned.
This July, a probe called “Deep Impact” will blast
a hole the size of the Roman Coliseum into a comet, using a 4.8-ton
charge. The explosion will help determine the composition of these
The expedition is focused on research, but the data could prove
crucial to deflect a future collision, NASA scientists said.
The largest national terrorism exercise in history showcased new
plans and structures to react to large-scale attacks on the United
The third Top Officials event, or TOPOFF, that ended in April involved
more than 10,000 participants from more than 200 federal, states,
local, private sector and international organizations. The event
took the Department of Homeland Security two years to plan.
TOPOFF-3 featured two inaugural performances. Authorities implemented
the recently issued National Incident Management System and National
Response Plan. “We took these two cars off the showroom floor,
and we took them on a very, very challenging test ride,” noted
one senior Department of Homeland Security official during a background
The exercise began during the first week in March, with an intelligence
and information portion meant to test agencies’ abilities
to share information up and down the chain of command. Those intelligence
nuggets pointed to a series of preventable terrorist acts. If coordination
among state, federal and local partners were successful, the number
of simulated attacks would be reduced. Officials noted that some
attacks were thwarted during the exercise, but are saving details
for after-action analysis.
For the simulation’s sake, other attacks could not be prevented—namely
two weapons of mass destruction attacks that “killed”
thousands of citizens.
The National Incident Management System and National Response Plan
both will be changed to reflect lessons learned. “We’re
anxious to continue tweaking those documents now,” the official
said. “We have the baseline documents that we’re now
going to build standard operating procedures and operational supplements.”
Under the systems, any unmet requirements from the state and local
level come into a joint military field office, where the federal
agency partners determine if they can provide a solution to the
“We built in some deliberate Defense Department play in this
exercise, some of it in coordination with the state National Guard
units, to figure out who might have the best capability and be able
to best respond,” the senior DHS official noted.
After-action comments also addressed an often-cited problem to
reacting to a massive attack—the lack of hospital space to
handle the surge in wounded. One of the Pentagon’s roles in
the aftermath of a massive weapon strike would be setting up mobile
hospitals. Another military role centered on airlifting critical
patients out of the attack zones for treatment.